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Rep. Steve Southerland and the GOP class of 2010 make peace with the House leadership, and vice versa

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By JONATHAN STRONG
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In spite of, or maybe because of, his battles with leadership, Boehner in April 2012 appointed Southerland to his first conference committee, a group of senators and representatives convened to hash out the differences between House and Senate versions of a transportation bill.

Southerland and his freshman friends showed up to their assigned working groups surprised to find aides representing the senators.

“I’m going: I think the American people think that if you’re named to a conference .  .  . you’re going to go and represent the people,” he said.

The conference process gave Southerland his first up-close exposure to the challenge of getting a bill through the House and the Senate and signed into law by the president, something that’s simple on paper but hard in reality.

“You started realizing: You know what? There’s a lot that goes into this. .  .  . It opened my eyes up to the effort. It opened my eyes up to the challenges,” Southerland said.

By the time the class representative slot fell vacant in December, it was clear Southerland had become a class standout. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., another sharp sophomore Republican, told Southerland he should consider running, pointing out his relationships across the class.

Southerland was elected class representative the day after Boehner survived as speaker. A week later, at a retreat where Southerland sat down as a member of the leadership team for the first time, he told Boehner of his late-night change of heart. “He thanked me. I think that it helped him understand me. I think that the conversation we had helped me understand him. Look, none of us are perfect,” Southerland said. 

Boehner, for his part, began to change his approach. He vowed to preserve “regular order,” meaning he would no longer engage Obama in secret negotiations. 

At the Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner sought the input of a working group of five influential conservatives—Paul Ryan, Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, Steve Scalise, and Jim Jordan—on a new approach to the pending debt ceiling standoff.

The proceedings there produced almost shocking unity on the resulting plan: a short-term debt limit increase attached to a relatively modest demand—for the Senate to finally pass a budget. One reason was several commitments Boehner made to the working group on spending levels, including that the GOP budget would eliminate the deficit in only 10 years. 

Most important, the House is now focused almost entirely on pushing the Senate to act, on the budget and everything else. “We’re trying to explain to the American people: The Senate’s not doing its work. Last term, we passed stuff, passed stuff, passed stuff—and it would just sit there and die!” McCarthy said. 

That approach limits moments of political exposure, internally and externally, otherwise known as votes. If the House maintains its current pace, it could set a record for inactivity.

Conservatives are happy, since Boehner is holding firm on the sequestration spending cuts. Moderates might be concerned, but they show no signs of panic. 

There’s a school of thought that all the chaos and conflict over the fiscal cliff helped the GOP work through its internal issues. 

“Would they have come out of Williamsburg united if it wasn’t for the confrontation?” asks Landry. “By having that conflict .  .  . I actually believe we’re stronger,” McCarthy said. 

Asked a question about the tests ahead for the GOP, Southerland points to the long scar on his head. As a boy, he was nearly killed in a baseball accident in the fifth inning when he collided with another player chasing a fly ball. His last memory of the game is from the second inning when his coach made him bunt. 

“One thing I learned a long time ago,” he said. “When I’m in the second inning, I don’t worry about the fifth.”

Jonathan Strong is a staff writer for Roll Call, covering the House leadership.


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